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Gov. Greg Abbott announces July 18 special session

(Dallas News, Brandi Grissom, Austin Bureau Chief Connect with Brandi Grissom) AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott has called a special session that will begin July 18. He outlined an agenda chock-a-block with red-meat conservative issues, including a "bathroom ban" and restrictions on property tax growth and abortion.

The announcement was a major win for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the conservative firebrand who leads the Senate and has been pressuring Abbott to call a special legislative session. Patrick's top priorities during the regular legislative session that ended Memorial Day included restricting bathroom access for transgender Texans and limiting local property tax growth.

Amid session-long squabbles that escalated in the final weeks of the regular legislative session, lawmakers failed to approve a must-pass bill to reauthorize several state agencies, including the one that licenses and oversees doctors, the Texas Medical Board. Those agencies will stop functioning in September without legislation to keep them up and running.

Abbott criticized lawmakers for failing to finish their business and said they have six weeks to prepare for the special session, which can last up to 30 days. The governor is the only state official who can convene a special legislative session, and he has been reluctant to do so in the past. Taxpayers, he has said, expect lawmakers to finish their work at the Capitol on time. But the failure to reauthorize agencies gave Abbott little alternative but to bring lawmakers back to get the job done.

"A special session was entirely avoidable," Abbott said. "There was plenty of time for the House and Senate to forge compromises."

Abbott said once the Senate approves a measure to reauthorize agencies that are scheduled to shutter, he will immediately add to the special session agenda 19 items championed by Republican lawmakers, including Patrick's top priorities.

"If I'm going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count," Abbott said.

Among the other issues Abbott said he would ask lawmakers to address: approving a $1,000 pay raise for public school teachers, prohibiting local ordinances that restrict homeowners and businesses, cutting off local money to abortion providers, restricting cities' ability to annex property and studying the causes of maternal deaths in Texas.

Abbott said he hopes that cooler heads will prevail in a special session after the tumultuous legislative session that ended on Memorial Day with a near-fisticuffs scuffle on the House floor.

"I expect legislators to return with a calm demeanor and with a firm commitment to make Texas even better," Abbott said.

The bathroom and tax proposals died amid bitter feuding between Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, a more moderate Republican. Straus, along with other moderate Republicans, business groups and Democrats, argued that the so-called bathroom bill would cost the Texas economy millions and encourage discrimination against a vulnerable population.

Abbott said he wants, at minimum, a bill that will keep transgender children in schools from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. He specifically pointed to a bill by Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, that would have eliminated city ordinances and school district rules that allow transgender people to use the restrooms that match their gender identity.

Simmons said he plans to file the measure again next week. He said Abbott sent a strong message by making the measure a priority for the special session.

"If it doesn't get done, it will either be because the leaders of the House or Senate didn't get it done," Simmons said.

During the regular session, House Republican leaders also rejected Patrick's property tax proposal, which would trigger automatic rollback elections if local property taxes grow by more than 5 percent. Under current law, residents can petition for a rollback election if the tax rate grows more than 8 percent. Local officials said the proposed change would hamstring their ability to provide important public safety services.

Abbott said he wants lawmakers to pass legislation that includes a rollback election provision.

"If we are going to come together and work this summer at taxpayers' expense, then let us work on relieving Texas homeowners from out-of-control property taxes," he said.

Angleton GOP Rep. Dennis Bonnen, who heads the tax-writing House Ways and Means panel, said he welcomes another chance to tighten revenue caps on cities, counties and other non-school taxing districts.

"The cities and counties overplayed their hand," Bonnen said. "And now they have a different situation — and it may no go as well for them."

Calling a special session could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on how long lawmakers take to reach an agreement. In 2013, PolitiFact Texas estimated a one-month special session could cost $716,100 to $819,000 in lawmaker and staff per diems alone. That doesn't include other costs related to continued use of the state Capitol.

The most recent special sessions with 20 or more items on the agenda were called by former Gov. Rick Perry. He convened two special sessions in the summer of 2005 with more than 20 topics on the agenda. Each lasted 30 days.

Patrick applauded Abbott for calling a special session, which the lieutenant governor had clamored for.

"I want to congratulate Governor Abbott for his big and bold special session agenda which solidly reflects the priorities of the people of Texas," Patrick said in a prepared statement.

Straus issued a less laudatory statement. He said before the legislative session ended that he didn't want lawmakers to return to the Capitol for overtime.

"The members of the House will return to the Capitol next month ready to put their constituents and the best interest of the state first," Straus said. "The House looks forward to resuming our work on school finance and other challenges facing this state."

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said Abbott's laundry list of special session topics ws a symptom of the governor's lax leadership during the regular legislative session.

"If the governor had not been so absent and so disengaged in the legislative process and from the duties of governor, frankly, he wouldn't be making his announcement today," Turner said.

Turner said the governor capitulated to political pressure from Patrick and the tea party wing of the GOP.

"It's clear to me the governor is panicking," Turner said. "Dan Patrick is breathing down his neck and has been for sometime. "

As Abbott mulled the special session question, far-right Republicans aligned with Patrick had implored him to expand the agenda of any such session to include other conservative priorities lawmakers failed to pass.

The Texas Republican Party executive committee on Tuesday sent Abbott a letter with an even bigger proposed agenda. In addition to the bathroom and tax measures, the nearly 60 GOP authors said they want lawmakers to vote on bills that would allow Texans to carry guns without licenses; abolish abortion and refuse to follow federal rules and court orders that allow the procedure; and allow parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools.

Abbott acquiesced on nearly all of their requests, plus added a few more agenda items.

Here is a complete list of the 20 items that will be on the special session agenda:

* Measures that will continue the operations of the Texas Medical Board and four other agencies are scheduled to shutter Sept. 1. * Teacher pay increase of $1,000. * Administrative flexibility in teacher hiring and retention practices. * A commission to study ways to fix public school financing. * Allowing parents of special needs children to use public school dollars for private schools. * Limiting growth of local property taxes. * Caps on state and local spending. * Preventing cities from regulating what property owners do with trees on private land. * Preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects. * Speeding up local government permitting process. * Restrict cities' ability to annex property. * Abbott signed a ban on texting while driving Tuesday, but he wants lawmakers to pass a bill preempting local restrictions on mobile devices in automobiles. * Restricting transgender Texans from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. * Prohibiting public employers from collecting union dues. * Prohibiting local governments from sending tax dollars to abortion providers. * Prohibiting abortion coverage under primary health insurance plans. * Increasing reporting requirements when health complications arise from abortions. * Strengthening patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders. * Cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud. * Extending a study of the causes of maternal mortality.

Copyright 2017 Dallas News. All rights reserved.

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